Cannes premiere 'American Honey' is a gritty and ethereal road trip starring mostly non-actors (and Shia LaBeouf).
Andrea Arnold is an auteur in the true sense of the word: her cinematic style is distinctive, and the stories she brings to the screen, from her Oscar-winning short film WASP to Red Road to Fish Tank, share a single beating heart—a young woman chasing authentic self-expression.
With her Cannes 2016 premiere American Honey, Arnold introduces a sense of dreaminess to her signature documentary-style grit. The story follows a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), as she trades her abusive home in Oklahoma for a life selling magazines on the road. The crew, a group of disenfranchised youth and its two ringleaders, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Crystal (Riley Keough), traverses the Midwest in a large white van that pulses with Rihanna, rap, rock, country, and the vitality and possibility one can only find on a road trip.
Inspired and intrigued by a New York Times article about the door-to-door magazine crew subculture, English-born Arnold set out to make her first American film by taking a road trip herself. "I had to make a connection with [America] before filming," Arnold said at the film's press conference at Cannes. "The West is very dramatic. I had some quite difficult times being by myself traveling in that open wilderness." During one of those difficult times, Arnold narrowly escaped a tornado while driving in remote Alabama. "It started storming, and there were tornado warnings on the radio, and they were telling me to get off the road and I was completely by myself," she remembered. When she stopped at a motel to ask what to do in the event of an emergency, the woman behind the front desk said, "Honey, pull over and get in a ditch."
"It made me feel what it was like being on the crew," Arnold said.
According to Arnold, the vision of America represented in the film is "a mix of the America I grew up with—that I saw through Hollywood, romanticized—and contemporary America that I saw when I did my trips."
"We have rules, but they’re chaotic. It’s following chaos. For me, it’s as pure as you can get. It’s just a camera on a shoulder."
Even though Arnold is no stranger to depicting poverty, what she saw in the struggling lower class of Midwest America disturbed her. "I got to see an awful lot," she said. "I was quite upset about some of the towns I went to. When people don’t have money, they can’t get health care, which is really different than in the UK. So many drugs, as well. Those kinds of things really shocked me."
The spirit of the American Dream looms large on the horizon of these downtrodden towns; for Arnold, the magazine crew is a microcosm. "They’re trying to make their version of the American Dream," Arnold said. "They’re working hard, selling themselves, trying to make a living. [Selling magazines] is a bit like buying things for charity—you’re not really buying the magazine, you’re buying the person."
The soundtrack is one of the film's best assets; it complements the story, providing an "emotional backdrop," in Arnold's words. As in Richard Linklater's Boyhood, with which American Honey shares some tonal similarity, the music inspires an adolescent ecstasy. But one song was particularly meaningful for Arnold. "Rihanna's Found Love has quite a personal history for me," she said. "It reflects the year I was writing this. It meant a lot to me at the time. I love Rihanna." The song plays twice in the film, each time tracing a different moment in Star and Jake's romantic trajectory. But Arnold doubted she would be able to secure the rights. "So I wrote her a letter," Arnold said. "I loved writing: 'Dear Rihanna, Love Andrea.' I explained what I was trying to do. We got it!"
Arnold is a proponent of real-world casting, and she continues this tradition with American Honey. A month before production was set to begin, Arnold approached Sasha Lane (who plays Star) on the beach. "I was on spring break, and I was really happy that day," Lane said. "I got a good vibe. I just remember walking down the beach and I [felt] so whole. I was so happy to have met her. I knew she was someone important. She would take care of me. This wasn’t going to be a porn scam." Arnold took Lane to the local Waffle House, where they bonded; later, the director auditioned Lane in the foyer of her hotel. "I'm a floater," Lane continued, "and I was just like, cool, man, let's do it."
Casting non-actors lends Arnold's films an almost unrivaled sense of verisimilitude. In fact, much of Lane's character is, well, Lane herself. "All of our character's personalities were made up as we went," said Lane. "Andrea told us to be who we are and go with how you feel. How we felt that day was what you would get [on set]. We were all a big part of creating this with her."
"When I’m making a film, I don’t want to watch other films. I want to find my own way."
Shia LaBeouf felt the same way. "Jake is me," he said. "I understand these people. I empathize with them. It’s me."
To shoot the film, Arnold embarked upon a road trip with the actors. "We did 12,000 miles together," she said. "They didn’t know where they were going."
"Lars [Knudsen, the producer] kept telling us we were going to California, but that was not the case at all," said Raymond Coalson, who plays a member of the magazine crew.
At Tribeca earlier this year, Arnold admitted she was relieved that everyone survived the production. "It was an adventure," she said. "At the very end, when we wrapped, the very first thing I thought was, 'I'm so glad nobody died.' We didn't do the same take twice. It was a bit of a nightmare to edit."
Robbie Ryan, who has two premieres at Cannes this year, has collaborated with Arnold as a cinematographer on all of her films to date. He's used to embracing her impromptu shooting style. "It's a very free-form thing," Ryan said. "We have rules, but they’re chaotic. It’s following chaos. For me, it’s as pure as you can get. It’s just a camera on a shoulder. It has a bit more poetry [than other styles]. We care about the image. It’s free."
It's fitting, then, that Arnold's inspiration is derived not from cinema, but from life itself. "People ask me a lot about my influences," she said. "When I’m making a film, I don’t want to watch other films. I want to find my own way. I take inspiration from each film based on the world I’m exploring. I go into it. I do a lot of immersive research in people and places. I find real life and real people really inspiring."